In my mind, there are two spot-on perfect descriptions of what mental illness feels like to me.
One: “It feels like ginger ale in my skull.” -Tony Soprano, “The Sopranos,” The Sopranos.
Two: “I got stuff runnin’ ‘round my head that I just can’t live down.” -Bruce Springsteen, “Something in the Night”
That Bruce song is the third track on his third album, Darkness on the Edge of Town. And I got to talk about that with a host of other Bruce nerds at the fifth Bruce Springsteen Symposium, held last month at Monmouth University. This year’s conference was centered on Darkness on the Edge of Town. Once I found out it was the theme, I knew I had to be there.
Darkness is my all-time favorite album. It’s dark and raw and packed with stories of characters seeking a little bit of salvation. It’s bleak but hopeful, painful but raucous. It’s an album packed with images —both symbolic and overt—of Springsteen’s own depression.
I became a serious fan of Bruce in 2009, and I connected with Darkness—first the song, then the album—pretty much immediately. I’ve had generalized anxiety disorder, social anxiety, depression and obsessive compulsive symptoms for nearly 20 years. It dates back to grade school before I even knew what those disorders were. It was insomnia in middle and high school. The rituals to make sure my mom wouldn’t die, making deals with some invisible cosmic force to guarantee my safety or to ensure that something good would happen to me. The general insecurity and paranoia that has plagued me since elementary school (from “I didn’t get invited to that birthday party because nobody likes me” to “everybody I know is plotting against me and, oh yeah, my delusions have made me the most jealous person on earth”). Canceling clarinet lessons and staying home from soccer games because I was paralyzed by the nervous pit in my stomach.
I started calling that pit “The Feeling” when I was 12 or 13. I still do. The name is vague because The Feeling itself is vague. It’s an overwhelming, uncontrollable sensation of dread that often crops up out of nowhere and only goes away when I stop thinking about it. That almost always takes hours, and it’s always uncomfortable.
I’d tried therapy in high school, but it didn’t stick. I just existed in a perpetual state of what felt like impossibly glum anxiousness, either too embarrassed or too apathetic to really do something about it. But when I first heard Darkness all the way through at 19, things started to align. That line from “Something in the Night” hit me like a ton of bricks. It defined me, and it made me search inside of myself to figure out what I was waiting for. Plus, this all happened around the time I started having severe panic attacks, and, honestly, I don’t think it was a coincidence. Fate intervened.
But that started a nearly decade-long pattern of seesawing back and forth between being 100 percent all-in on seeking treatment and just plain old apathy, or worse, thinking that I was cured and no longer in need to medicate or go to therapy. Eventually that constant fluctuation became too much. It’s an exhausting existence, and I was tired of living it.
Within the last couple of years, though, Springsteen’s openness about his struggles, about seeking treatment and medication, forced me to confront my own unwillingness to help myself. And finally, last year, it clicked. It was a combination of hearing from my loved ones, listening to Darkness, knowing that Bruce himself was medicated (from his autobiography), and this quote from David Kamp’s October 2016 Vanity Fair profile of Springsteen:
“One of the points I’m making in the book is that, whoever you’ve been and wherever you’ve been, it never leaves you,” Bruce said. “I always picture it as a car. All your selves are in it. And a new self can get in, but the old selves can’t ever get out. The important thing is, who’s got their hands on the wheel at any given moment?”
It’s a great reminder that depression or anxiety or whatever is eating at you may never completely go away, and that’s OK. Sometimes, true happiness feels so far away, like it takes everything in me to get out of bed a half hour before work starts, or to eat something more than a handful of cheese and a piece of candy for dinner. It’s getting sick to my stomach leading up to a social situation, or rearranging towels in the bathroom so I don’t get in a car accident when I leave the house.
Other times, though, contentment feels right within reach. And still other times, I can feel it deep in my soul. But no matter what, I know which part of my brain I want—and need—to control that steering wheel.
So I wrote a paper about all of that, plus some analysis of the album, contextualizing everything with Bruce’s family history of mental illness and researching the many times he’s discussed his own depression. I presented How Depression Drives “Darkness on the Edge of Town” at the symposium last month alongside a lawyer and a psychologist, who wrote on similar topics. I’m not much of a public speaker, so I was super nervous and started out a little shaky, but once I realized, “Hey, all you need to do is riff about your favorite human ever,” I was fine. I got through it, and I enjoyed the rest of the weekend of panels, presentations and speakers.
I thought a lot about the album that weekend. But I think about it all the time. In Darkness’s title track, Springsteen sings, “I’ll be on that hill ‘cause I can’t stop/I’ll be on that hill with everything that I’ve got.” That hill has come to represent hope for me. It’s a symbol of pushing myself, of an uphill climb to self-realization and self-love. I may not be ready to climb it all the time. But I know it will be there when I am.